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Jennifer Kent: The female director Pioneering modern horror


Having long been rightfully criticised for the lack of female representation behind the camera, the film industry is slowly improving in its diversification of talent. With the 2021 Academy Award for Best Picture going to female director Chloé Zhao, and the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival going to Julia Ducournau, it is clear that cinema is going in the right direction, with much more still to be done. One genre that has long missed the influence of a leading female voice, however, is horror, where directors such as William Friedkin, James Wan and John Carpenter have held the spotlight for many years. However, in 2014, Jennifer Kent made a grand introduction to the genre with The Babadook.

Born in Brisbane, Australia, Jennifer Kent started her career in front of the camera, with The Babadook, lead actor Essie Davis explaining, she was “[an] eerily phenomenal actress … the girl that was obviously the best girl at the whole school”. Inspired to work in the film industry later in her young life, Kent had no interest in attending film school though was invigorated with energy after watching Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, writing to the filmmaker to plead for collaboration. 

As Kent recalled to The Guardian, “I remember leaping up at the end and saying, ‘I want to work with this guy.’…So I got his address and wrote him a really heartfelt email about why I wanted to come and learn from him. I said I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than go to film school”. Lars von Trier responded and Kent was asked to come along and work as a runner throughout the course of the production of Dogville where the young hopeful would gain invaluable experience. As Kent further recalls, “What I think I learned from him was that it’s OK to be stubborn. Women are not socialised to be stubborn and to hold on to a vision, yet here I saw someone who had to do that. Someone who had a very singular vision and followed it from start to finish”.

Finishing the von Trier project, Kent pursued filmmaking, creating the horror short Monster, that would later be adapted into the full-length glory of The Babadook nine years after its release. Kent’s fairytale-gone-wrong follows a single mother’s journey into despair whilst taking care of her autistic child when a mysterious, insidious book appears in her house, joined by a malevolent demon. Receiving widespread critical acclaim, the reputation of The Babadook was significantly heightened after horror legend tweeted, “Psycho, Alien, Diabolique, and now The Babadook“. Elaborating on this rather ambiguous tweet, Friedkin then replied to his previous comment, stating: “I’ve never seen a more terrifying film than The Babadook. It will scare the hell out of you as it did me”.

Is the representation of women in horror changing gradually?

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Terror lingers and builds to insurmountable dread in this terrific debut feature utilising simple monster production design and practical effects to punctuate a story which, much like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, is really a tale of the horrors of deep-seated grief and mourning. Bringing up many everyday issues that face modern motherhood including raising a child as a widow or single parent, Jennifer Kent stated, “Now, it’s not just female filmmakers making romantic comedies, but there are female filmmakers across the board. It’s no longer a realm for women that’s impossible”. 

Since the release of the film seven years ago, Jennifer Kent has enjoyed her newfound filmmaking fame, making her second feature film in 2018 with the visceral revenge thriller, The Nightingale. A brutal old-age western, The Nightingale is far more of a provoking film, carefully crafting a heavy story spiked with harsh truths. It’s no easy watch, though it is certainly an important one, following an abused female character compellingly captured from a refreshing perspective. 

“It will shift, as the world shifts. Women do love watching scary films. It’s been proven, and they’ve done all the tests. The demographics are half men, half women. And we know fear. It’s not like we can’t explore the subject,” Kent said of her efforts in the horror genre. Whilst her latest project, Alice + Freda Forever looks to deviate from the genre, its central themes of female empowerment and sexual equality look to continue Jennifer Kent’s pioneering cinematic accomplishments.